What Does it Take For a Girl to Get a Passport Around Here? Adventures in Being Canadian Abroad

Doug says I look beatific in my new passport photo

 

I’m still Canadian.

I say this with a certain degree of relief because, well, until yesterday my passport had been in the hands of the Canadian Consulate in Shanghai and I was getting a very strong impression that they were on the verge of revoking my citizenship because… because… well, do they even need a reason?

My background is dubious enough as it is, without factoring in my shifty gaze and chameleon-like need to  reinvent myself every year or so (hey, remember my buzz-cut platinum blond faux-lesbian days in London?).  All those stamps with Arabic writing on them? All those Chinese visas?  That Burmese stamp? All those wildly disparate home addresses and jobs, all in just the past 5 years? Dodgy.

I’ve been living and working and traveling abroad since, um, 1994. That’s 18 years, come September. I think I got my first passport in 1993 though, when I was going through my asexual-groupie phase, following bands down to Seattle. Did I ever tell you how Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil once asked me to go clubbing with him but I couldn’t because I was only 18 (3 years under-age in the US)? Yeah.

I should be in the middle of my 4th 5-year passport by now. I’ve just received my 6th. Canadian passports are valid 5 years, but I’ve never been able to use the full five years as most countries insist on it being valid for at least 6 more months in order to let you in. If you need a work permit, you need at least a full year.

Also, those lovely 5 year passports have an adorably small number of pages (my last one had 24 pages, but the first 5 pages weren’t even usable as they had other things going on, like my photo and personal data or a bunch of small type telling me what to do if it’s stolen), with no page extensions allowed. Technically, I had 19 stampable pages.

Do you have any idea how many stamps and full-page visas a girl will go through when doing the following, between October 2008 and April 2012?

Canada–>USA–>Canada–>Mexico–>Belize–>Guatemala–>El Salvador–>Honduras–>Nicaragua–>Costa Rica–>USA–>Canada–>China (initial full-page tourist visa, converted to full-page work visa a month later, then another full-page tourist visa to bridge gap while 2nd full-page work visa was being arranged)–> Indonesia (full page)–>China–>HongKong/Macau–>China–>Canada–>China (with new work visa)–>Burma (full page)–>China–>Cambodia (full page)–>China (with new work visa)–>Canada–>Sri Lanka–>China–>Thailand–>China.

By August of last year, I was down to only 2 non-sequential empty pages, with a few scattered partial pages. Coming back from Sri Lanka, I was chewed out by the check-in woman in Bangkok for not having enough blank pages. According to her, what I was doing was illegal and I could be prevented from flying, even though re-entering China didn’t require a full page and I already had a page set aside for Chinese entry/exit stamps. China is wonderfully methodical, placing all stamps in neat lines next to each other.  Makes it easier to keep track of the errant laowai.

To make sure that my last two precious pages weren’t casually annihilated by a wayward entry stamp, I had to take desperate measures.  Post-It Notes are, thankfully, not in the ‘defacing your passport’ category.

 

Apologies for PhotoBooth mirroring. Can’t be arsed to go get proper camera.

 

Since I was down to just one free page (Thailand claimed one of my 2 Post-It Note pages), I knew I had to renew before my current work visa expired. Sure, I had a spare year and a half left on it and it was annoying to be forking over $150 every few years unnecessarily, but a Canadian must do what a Canadian must do.

 

This would be, what, Passport #4? (or #5?) in the past 18 years?

Let me tell you all about renewing your passport in Shanghai.

 

I went to the consulate over the Qing Ming Festival long weekend, as that was the only time my co-Canadian, Jeannie, was able to come over from the wilds of Wuxi to get hers renewed.

It also meant that every photo studio in the city was closed, their owners off sweeping their ancestors’ graves somewhere. If you were an ordinary mortal, this would be no big whoop as a passport photo is pretty standard. That’s what metro station photo booths are for.

Unless you are Canadian, of course.

What you need if you are Canadian:

A highly irregular photo size, known to only a half dozen photographers in all of Shanghai (the consulate actually has a list), with photographer’s official stamp, signature, shop address and date hand written on the back of each photo.

Said photographer needs to check your ID to verify that you are not in fact an impostor. The form was quite adamant about protocol, and my 5 previous passport applications were quite strict about enforcing it.

However, as noted, all shops were closed for the week due to the need to sweep tombs.

The woman behind the plexiglass at the consulate had no suggestions for us, just a bored shrug, but a guy in the waiting room ran after us as we left in frustration, saying that for whatever reason, in Shanghai, metro station photo-booth photos were acceptable.

Off we went to the Jing’an Temple station up the road, where we monopolized the photobooth for a good half hour, trying to find an option in accordance with the Canadian required dimensions. In case you were wondering, it’s a sub-sub option in the visa application section.

My first round of photos clearly show my love for bureaucracy and ease of transaction. Also, my need for anti-static-electricity hair gel. I look like one of those big metal stands science teachers use to teach kids about electricity.  Strands of superfine hair stood up everywhere.

Put your hand here, Billy.

 

The sorrow of a thousand years of pent up passport pain

 

Totally not legit passport photos in hand, we returned to the passport office to discover that half of my references were invalid. Apparently Doug is considered by Canada as my common-law spouse (hey Doug, thought you oughta know!) and so couldn’t be used because he’s family. I had to scramble to remember the address of someone else who wasn’t family that I could use. I decided to use Cissy, my lone colleague out at Tongji for my last two years of bleak, lonely teaching. Then I realized that I had no idea what her real name was and had to call her up to say, hey, yeah, I know we worked together for two years and we’ve hung out since but, um, hey, what’s your real name? 

It felt like a dirty one night stand.

As well, on the official application form, it said that you  need a guarantor (doctor, dentist, judge, bank manager, etc) who has known you at least 2 years and can personally vouch for your identity. I’ve been to a dental clinic here (twice, different guys each time, the first of whom is long gone), seen one anonymous doctor (for my last rabies shot), had 3 different bank accounts (but have never once met any of my managers),  and have yet to meet anyone involved in the judiciary process.

The woman at the consulate slid the Form in Lieu of a Guarantor through the slot under the plexiglass window.

What you need when attempting to prove your identity to the Canadian Consulate when you don’t know any lawyers or doctors in Shanghai:

  • A detailed list of every job (with address and contact number) you’ve held in the past 5 years (mine had a lot of question marks and gaps)
  • A detailed list of every address you’ve lived at in the past 5 years (I had to ask for a second sheet of paper)
  • A list of 5 more non-related people who have known you at least 2 years, plus their full address, phone number, email address (you have no idea how hard it is to think of that many on the spot) and their specific relationship to you and exactly how long you’ve known them.

As I slowly filled it out in the tiny, windowless room, brain aching from trying to remember my own life, the woman behind the plexiglass poked her finger through the little slot under the window and told me, like a teacher scolding a student, that I must write on my In Lieu of a Guarantor form the following message:

I, Mary Anne Oxendale, have been officially warned that I must never, ever, ever, ever again attempt to apply for a passport in Shanghai without a guarantor, even if they don’t actually know me as a person and are unable to legitimately vouch for my identity in a credible way.

I was quite certain that a spanking was forthcoming.

Normally a new passport would take three weeks to be issued but my lack of guarantor and dubious personal history meant I’d be waiting a month, at least (‘we’ll let you know if we find any inconsistencies in your stories which would lead to delays‘, she’d said to me, as if resigned to such a fate).

During that month, phone calls were made. My poor, saintly referees (who shall remain anonymous) were grilled over the phone about the following:

  • Where do her parents live?
  • What’s her street address?
  • What colour are her eyes?
  • What’s her hair colour?
  • What job does she do exactly, and who is her employer?

And so on.

And if you’ve only known me here in Shanghai, as a faux-redhead whose job situation is convoluted and bizarre at best, whose building opens out onto a totally different street from the official street address, then some of these questions might be difficult.

Two referees called me to double check that they had answered things correctly. They had, kinda. And kinda not.

Because my hair isn’t red and I don’t live on Jiashan Lu (even though our driveway opens onto it), my eyes aren’t blue but they can look like it some days, and I don’t really work for those Exam People because my visa is with my other job, and my parents live in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, and not in Vancouver itself, because, well, if you’ve never ever been to Canada, how are you supposed to know these things?

I spent most of April waiting for that call from Canada stating that they’d decided to revoke my citizenship after all.

On Thursday, when Jeannie came over from Wuxi to join me for the official Collection of the Passports, I was actually nervous. About getting a passport. For my own country of birth. A renewal one, at that.

I got it. It was fine. The plexiglass woman even smiled slightly when she slid it over.

So, yeah.

But let me  tell you about one of the two other times when I got my passports abroad!

My first time was in South Africa in 1999 or 2000, but it was uneventful aside from the fact that I got a random Cape Town cop (with a huge gun) to be my guarantor and that I was inexplicably issued with just a 1 year passport (to be extended to 5 when I got back to Canada). That one-year passport caused me no end of grief as it stated quite boldly next to my name: THIS IS A ONE YEAR PASSPORT! VALID UNTIL [one year later]! Only on page 3 was there a tiny little stamp saying, hey, yo, we just added 4 more years!

But anyway, the other one…

Best One Ever in a Weird Kind of Way: Turkey!

This one was an odd one.  It came at the beginning of my second year in Turkey, around mid-2003, when I was living in the wilds of Anatolia. My passport only had about 8 months left on it when I got my new ikamet (the work permit booklet you get there), but I was only granted a 6 month work visa because my passport didn’t have the full year left. It was no big deal though, as my school was well connected and I just had to do a last minute passport renewal after 4 months and everything would be fine. And it was.

A month before I took a day off from work to make the long journey to Ankara to the embassy, I emailed them to ask what I’d need. A dude called Smiley (‘Don’t call me Ismail’) replied.

A month later, I showed up at the embassy’s front door at 9am after an overnight bus ride from Kayseri. At the desk was Smiley (Ismail on the name tag).

I handed over my filled-in forms, including my Guarantor form which had been filled in by my family doctor back home. He had known me far longer than just the 2 year minimum required.

“I’m sorry,” said Smiley, smiling, “but Canada is not within the legal jurisdiction of the Canadian Embassy in Turkey. You need a Guarantor here in Turkey.”

“But I’ve only lived here a year,” I said.

“Well then, I shall be your guarantor. For 20 million lira.” That was about $12 at the time.  Not a bad rate for bribery. I gave him the money and he told me to go halfway down the block to that lovely tea shop over there for some nice cup of tea and some fresh, hot poğaça. He’d call me when he was done.

Now, normally passports take at least 2 weeks to process, under the best of circumstances. Abroad it tends to be more like a month. Even emergency passports take a day or two or three.

I was barely halfway through my tea and bun when Smiley called twenty minutes later. My passport was ready. I could pick it up as soon as I’d eaten my fill of breakfast. I was to take my time. No hurry.

Apparently they’d started all the paperwork when I sent out my initial inquiry. I guess there’s not all that much to do at the Canadian embassy in Ankara. Lots of tea drinking, poğaça eating, perhaps. Gotta keep busy by filling out applications before the applicant has even gotten around to it.

I was back on the noon bus to Kayseri, passport and take-away beyaz peynirli poğaça in hand.

The passport itself was non-machine-readable, as I was probably one of 3 people to ever get her passport renewed in Ankara so they never bothered to upgrade their passport-making-gizmo. This made things incredibly complicated at border crossings for the next five years as every immigration agent tried futilely to get the photo page to scan, when it stated quite plainly amongst the numbers along the bottom: This passport is not machine readable; Ce passeport n’est pas lisible à la machine (or something like that)…

Try telling that to the angry Bulgarian customs agent on the Turkish border.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.